The Craft of Costume at the SF Ballet

By Natalie Powell.

Swarovski crystals. Satin. Silk brocade. The San Francisco Ballet’s costume department dazzles and tantalizes at every turn.

Taking a welcome respite from the grit of city life, I met San Francisco Ballet Costume Supervisor Patti Fitzpatrick in her War Memorial Opera House workshop to discover the intricacies of ballet costume design.

As Patti described her craft and guided me through the costume department, overflowing with costumes that glisten and shine, I realized I had entered another world: a world of dreams.

Swan Lake bodice detail

When did you enter the field of costume design? What is your background? As a professional ice skater, I skated in Ice Follies (with Peggy Flemming) and Holiday on Ice from 1967 to 1977. I always designed and made my own costumes when I was training in San Francisco. Between ice shows, I studied fashion design at Pacific Fashion Institute and art, illustration and fashion illustration at Academy of Art. I wanted to be a fashion designer.

Patti Fitzpatrick in her workshop

I happened into this job by accident. A friend from Ice Follies started working for the Ballet in the wardrobe department’s warehouse, and when she left to work in the film industry, I took over for her. When she returned, I continued to work in the costume department as her assistant, and I’ve been here ever since, for 30 years.

Leotards and sewing machines in Patti's workshop

What are your day-to-day responsibilities? I did quite a bit of design in the beginning of my career. Now I’m in responsible for the daily overall running of the Wardrobe Department: managing all of the costumes used in the 28 ballets we produce each season, making improvements to the costumes and making sure that the dancers can move in them, organizing fittings, tailoring and creating new costumes. I stand backstage during performances so if part of a dancer’s costume rips, I can fix it quickly or… [laughs] rip the material off so she can run back on stage!

The wings of the Opera House stage

In the ballet world, the choreographer usually hand-selects the costume designer used for each ballet. So here, Helgi Tomasson will choose Sandra Woodall, Jonathan Fensom, Julian Crouch, or another designer from anywhere in the world to create the costumes for each ballet. The chosen designers come to the Opera House and design the costumes, and I help oversee that process, along with George Elvin, our Wardrobe Manager, and Frank Morales, our Costume Production Coordinator.

Some designers are really familiar with fabrics and dancers and the way they move but some aren’t because they’ve worked in theater. So, I give them input regarding fit and durability. I also pull costumes for the student showcases, and when there’s a pas de deux or a smaller ballet production, I design the costumes for those.

Colorful spools of thread in Patti's workshop

Ballet costume sketch

Ballet costumes have to meet so many practical needs: they must move well, communicate the story of the ballet, and suit the individual dancers. How do you balance all of these needs to dress an artistic athlete? Fit and patterning are so important. For example, [in] men’s jackets, I leave generous room under the arms and insert secret panels of stretch behind the side seams . . . [to] let them move freely. Also, the men’s “jackets” are actually a vest piece and separate shirt. This allows for ease of arm movement, but the audience just sees a jacket!

For female dancers, cutting on the bias is important, as this technique allows the dancers to move freely. I also insert boning into their bodices, to add support and minimize wrinkling so the bodices can be tighter.

Sometimes, the tutus are made too heavy, so I take out layers so they don’t weigh the dancers down. And if a tutu is too droopy, I’ll take out the limp parts and add one very stiff layer. There are all sorts of alterations and “secret” accommodations for the dancers that go into costume design.

Hidden stretch panel in a jacket

Structured bodice inside a female dancer's costume

What are you working on in your workshop right now? I’m preparing for costume fittings that will be happening tomorrow and I’m working on painting ballet slippers to match the dancer’s tights. I label the paint colors by the character whose tights are that color. Here we have “peasant” color! [Laughs.] I’m also working on applying gold to pointe shoes for an upcoming performance.

Patti's paints

Comparisons have been made between couture design and ballet costume design. Do you see any areas of overlap between the two fields? In several instances, that’s a very accurate comparison. Many ballet costumes are made in same style as couture garments and involve the same constructional challenges and features: tiny tucked pleats, finished edges, piping, hidden closures, beautiful linings, and hand-stitched boning. The difference is that couture garments are worn maybe a couple of times [but] ours have to last 15 to 20 years, withstanding partnering and our dancers being thrown into the air and onto the ground.

Ornate men's jacket detail

Where do you get your materials? International Silks & Woolens in LA, Discount Fabrics on Howard Street here in SF, Fabric Outlet (for silks and brocades), and Thai Silks in Los Altos. And I’ve been buying fabric at Britex since I was 14! I just went there this week to buy salmon-colored material for leotards. I also order fabric from all over the world: New York, France, England and Germany.

Rich brocade on a Cinderella costume

What are your favorite textiles to use? Stretch is great for some things, like unitards, leotards, men’s pants and tights. But for me, nothing can replace silk and brocade. I love heavy silk pants on male dancers, as opposed to polyester, and beautiful silk bodices for female dancers instead of those made out of stretch. You can have a good silk bodice for 30 years, but a stretch bodice will only last for 12 years, if that.

Sleeping Beauty costume silk bodice

What is the cost of making one costume? The cost can vary, depending on labor and materials. One costume usually costs thousands of dollars to create. French lace, materials imported from France or Germany, cut velvet, silk brocade, trims, beads and Swarovski crystals all drive the price up. Using Swarovski crystals has became a common practice because of the unique way that they catch the light.

Sleeping Beauty costume detailing with Swarovski crystals

But even a simple-looking garment with no jewels—a peasant dress, for example—can cost thousands of dollars to make. Creating costumes for a full length production can cost millions of dollars! This is why sharing costumes between companies is so important.

Raymonda Act III men's costume

Raymonda Act III women's costume

How long does it take to make one ballet costume? It can take one day to make a simple leotard and as long as a few months to create a complex costume. For Voices of Spring, I saw a seamstress take 2 months to make one costume. The design was very complicated, though, and involved quite a bit of patterning, draping and sewing fine stitches onto chiffon. The costume looked like couture when it was finished.

A tutu takes three days to make. First we take a dancer’s measurements and make a panty out of Bobbinet. Then, we sew rows of stitches onto the Bobbinet, cut out layers of net, and sew the bosque around the waist of the panties. Then, we sew on the tutu netting and create a bodice. We store our tutus upside-down to preserve their structure.

Upside-down tutus

What’s your favorite part of the design process? Seeing a costume for the first time, in its entirety, on stage. The final product is definitely the most rewarding part of the process. I love seeing how the costumes move after working with them in a static state for so long. When a costume comes to fruition, it’s magic!

Cinderella costume with Swarovski crystals and hand-embroidering

Why do you think Americans continue to be intrigued by the ballet world? As years pass and cultural tastes change, why does ballet endure? People are fascinated by ballet and fascinated by the young, agile bodies that can accomplish such remarkable athletic feats. The music and the live orchestra are also big factors. People love coming to the Opera House and experiencing everything—music, movement, and costume—as a package. Costumes are the icing on the cake. The dancers get caught up in the costumes, which helps them communicate the story. It’s real fantasy. You wonder how, night after night, we can fill 3,146 seats. It’s because people want to lose themselves in a dream state, where they’re transported to another place and time.


San Fransisco Ballet

Ticket line: 415-865-2000

To see the Raymonda Act III costumes in person, book a ticket for one of the upcoming showings of the ballet, April 9-20.

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One Response to The Craft of Costume at the SF Ballet

  1. Jayne says:

    This was a real pleasure and an education. Thank you for publishing this interview!